It’s called The Chameleon Effect; it’s when we subconsciously copy someone else. Human beings are constantly imitating each other, copying everything from each other’s facial expressions, mannerisms, even our postures.
Researchers at The University of California, Riverside, found we also imitate speech patters and inflections. That is we have the capacity to imitate accents.
The theory behind The Chameleon Effect is that we do it to build rapport and empathy. The better you are at building empathy the more likely you are to mimic. All those people who pick up accents easily are just nicer people!
The study published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics1 came to the conclusion that we can even imitate speech patterns of voices we have never heard.
Professor Lawrence D. Rosenblum who headed the study1 had individuals who had not lip read before watch a silent face articulate 80 simple words.
The subject was then required to say the word out loud clearly. In each case the individual was able to pronounce the word in the same accent as the silent speaker. In fact when they spoke the words aloud, it sounded significantly different to the way the word sounded if they simply read the word in their own voice from a list.
“Whether we are hearing or lipreading speech articulations, a talker’s speaking style has subtle influences on our own manner of speaking,” Rosenblum says. “This unintentional imitation could serve as a social glue, helping us to affiliate and empathize with each other.
Having said that, no doubt you’ve come across people who have die hard accents who still sound exactly the same even though they’ve been living in their new adopted homeland for many years.
According to Dr Christina Schelletter, head of English Language and Communication at the University of Hertfordshire, it’s because some accents are harder to let go of than others.
As you get older it’s harder to adopt a new accent, as length of exposure to the second language makes a difference. If you’ve spent most of your life living in the Yorkshire Dales and then move to Brooklyn, New York, you’re unlikely to pick up the Brooklyn accent as most of your life you’ve been practicing the specific Yorkshire intonations. Phonological deafness can also make it difficult to imitate a new accent. It’s a condition we find in older people. Getting older makes it harder to pick up the subtle nuances in the different accents, let alone integrating those changes into your own vocal patterns.
“Non-native speakers [try] to substitute their native sounds for non-equivalent sound in the target language,” says Schekketter. “There are individual differences in terms of how strong an accent is, but overall, age and length of exposure to the second language very much contribute to the accent.”
There’s also some evidence to suggest that if you can carry a tune you’re much more likely to be able to pick up accents. Musically minded folk are much quicker to adopt a new accent. Scientists believe that being able to tune into the sounds and rhythms of music are not dissimilar to being about to pick up the intonations in language.
Some people are better at tuning in to the sounds, stress and intonation of the other language than others,” says Dr Schelletter. “It’s a function of “musicality”, she says.
Which leaves us with the following… If you’re one of those people who can pick up accents quicker than you can buy a baguette in Paris, then you’re probably not only a nice person, chances are you can hold a note too!
 Alignment to visual speech information. Miller et al. Attention Perception & Psychophysics, 2010; 72 (6): 1614 DOI: 10.3758/APP.72.6.1614